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Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master.
This passage occurs in Chapter VI, after Hugh Auld orders Sophia Auld to stop Douglass’s reading lessons because he feels education ruins an enslaved person for slavery. This moment represents a minor climax of the first half of the Narrative. Douglass, upon overhearing Hugh Auld’s words, finally realizes that whites hold Black people in their power through a series of strategies—most notably that of depriving Black people of education and literacy. To Douglass, this admission is valuable for two reasons. First, it confirms his fledgling sense that slavery is not a natural or justified form of society, but is rather a constructed power strategy supported by deprivation and dehumanization. In other words, Douglass knows himself not to be naturally inferior, but rather a victim of enforced ignorance. Second, Hugh Auld’s words allow Douglass to realize, through inversion, that he must become educated to become free. This lesson about the value of education is more important than the reading lessons themselves.
This quotation also shows that Douglass associates males and females with different kinds of knowledge. Though Douglass himself was a strong women’s rights advocate in later life, the Narrative depicts Douglass’s path to freedom as a confrontation with and an adoption of male authority. Though Douglass’s self‑education and struggle for freedom question the dominant assumptions about power and race, they implicitly adopt the dominant assumptions about power and gender. For example, Douglass presents his climactic moment of transformation from slave to man—his fight with Covey in Chapter X—as a moment defined by male physical power. In the quotation above, Douglass’s rhetorical structure sets the femaleness of Sophia Auld’s reading lessons as antithetical to Hugh Auld’s larger lesson about Sophia’s lesson. Douglass presents masculine knowledge as knowledge about knowledge, superior to feminine lessons. Douglass aligns himself with Hugh Auld in this equation, both through his dedication to opposing Hugh Auld and through his dedication to obtaining a form of knowledge that he understands to be masculine.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass!